In 1952, Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson rejected the idea of using television advertising in an election campaign, saying, "I think the American people will be shocked by such contempt for their intelligence. This isn't Ivory Soap versus Palmolive."
Stevenson's opponent, Dwight D. Eisenhower, took the opposite tack, embracing television spots in an unprecedented manner. He went on to win the presidency by a landslide, dooming Stevenson to historical obscurity.
Ever since Eisenhower demonstrated the potential of the half-minute ad, politicians have placed an incredible financial emphasis on securing votes through television. Candidates ranging from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton have sold themselves like products. In fact, in the Bush/ Gore election of 2000 alone, the Republican and Democratic parties spent a combined $97 million on TV ad campaigns.
This year's election promises to be no different. Democratic Senator John Kerry is building his war chest and has already received advertising assistance from the well-endowed progressive network MoveOn.org. And president Bush has raised nearly $200 million.
Last week, Bush's re-election campaign premiered its first ads of the season — three half-minute spots telling us why we should vote for him come November. While the ads shied away from hard numbers and jabs at Kerry, they used footage of the September 11 terrorist attacks and talked about why the Bush/ Cheney team has been such an effective political force in its four years of service to our country. This sparked some victims' families, firefighter groups and Democrats to cry foul, and some other victims' families and firefighter groups to come to the President's defense. Throughout the whole campaign, though, the Bush sales pitch is on display — "steady leadership in a time of change."
Kerry, the hopeful provider of his own brand of steady leadership, went on the offensive with his first set of ads. In his first spot, called "Keeping Our Word," Kerry lists some of the promises Bush has made and the contradictory facts that leave the impression that sometimes a politician will say things just to get votes.
Bush and Kerry's ads are likely to fire up their staunch supporters and leave those in the middle a bit confused, as the two sides often seem to present completely contradictory information. For this reason, for every spot that hits the airwaves there are analysts out there, like the Annenberg School of Public Policy's Factcheck.org, just waiting to clarify an otherwise cloudy, and at times misleading, picture.
"It's very seldom that politicians will outright lie," said Brooks Jackson, director of Factcheck.org, the nonpartisan, nonprofit resource that "aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in politics." "But they will spin a great deal." Spinning, Jackson explains, is when politicians leave out some important facts — like a billion dollars here and a billion dollars there — and only provide you with the most palatable information. "Spin control is what happens in an election. It's always a part of it. Bush is misleading and Kerry is misleading. Who is more [misleading]? That's hard to say."
Factcheck.org says it can't do much with the Bush ads yet because there are no specific factual assertions, but it points out the misrepresentations in Kerry's "Keeping Our Word" commercial. For example, the ad states that under the Bush administration, America has lost 2.9 million jobs. Citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Factcheck clarifies that actually only 2.2 million jobs have been lost. While Kerry's ad does provide inaccuracies on jobs as well as health insurance for veterans, Jackson finds it to be on solid footing with statements about the national deficit.
But should we see all political spots as 30-second deceptions? "It's healthy to always think that there's something going on behind the words," Jackson added. "You can wind up being too cynical if you think that everything that comes out of their mouths is wrong. But you should know that you're quite possibly not getting the full story."
Lewis Mazanti, curator of the Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive (which shows campaign ads from 1952 to the present online at www.ammi.org/livingroomcandidate) agrees with Jackson, saying, "People should approach everything they see on television with a degree of skepticism. In the past, negative advertising has been the most effective. Voters tend to pay more attention to them and it's problematic to take them for granted." Mazanti added that the worst mudslinging campaign he remembers was during the Clinton/ Dole election. "They invest all this money and time to win over the 10 to 20 percent of the swing voters, the undecided. All this controversy is just to gain that small — but important — minority."
Like H.G. Wells said, advertising can be legalized lying. Perhaps it's best if we see the political advertisements for what they are — ads. Back in '52, maybe Adlai Stevenson was too quick to pooh-pooh the idea that he was a consumer product. Because, essentially, the president is a product, and you're the consumer.
For more political news, insight into the 2004 presidential election and information on registering to vote, check out Choose or Lose.